Orchard growers offer jobs few choose to pick

WENATCHEE VALLEY, Wash. - It's the height of harvest in Washington's apple orchards, and Al Robison, owner of Robison Orchards Inc., is racing against time.

"We're just running out of days," Robison tells CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. He needs to clear 240 acres of apples before the first freeze. He usually has 80 pickers. This year, he could barely find 60.

"Once they're frozen that quality goes downhill fast," Robison said. "And after a couple days, you're done."

Washington Apple Commission

"Help Wanted" signs are planted up and down the Wenatchee Valley, nicknamed the apple capital of the world. Right now, the state desperately needs more than 10,000 fruit pickers.

So where are all the workers? A lot of growers are convinced that all the talk about illegal immigration in Washington, D.C., has scared away the apple pickers here in Washington state.

Most of the pickers here are migrant workers. An estimated 66,000 are here illegally. That's about 72 percent of all farm hands statewide.

"In this last year, they deported more and arrested more because they don't have a license," said Alfonso Garcia, who has a green card and who has worked these orchards for 24 years. Garcia says increased border security and crackdowns on illegals have gutted the migrant workforce. They carry the load of this backbreaking work. Each picker hauls 8,000 pounds of apples in a nine-hour day.

Robison said, "it's a lot of work." That's a reason why, despite 9.1 percent unemployment in this state, Americans aren't lining up. "I'm paying $150 a day," Robison said. "Unemployed people who are on unemployment aren't willing to get off of that and come work."

The labor shortage has put the $1.4 billion Washington apple crop at risk.

"Without a labor force to do that, the industry is not going to survive long term," said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association. He wants Congress to create a new guest worker program that allows Mexican migrants to come here for harvest, then return home.

"We see a need for securing borders and taking care of your immigration. There's no question about that," Grim said. "But we have workers who want these jobs, and we have workers in America who clearly do not want these jobs."

Without more workers Robison worries that after three generations of growers, he could be his family's last. "It will fold. People will go out of business."